Sustaining Your Performance on the Water by Boots Allen
Fly fishing has a reputation as a relaxed, contemplative endeavor requiring little stamina or physical prowess. One national magazine used to refer to it as “the quiet sport”. A skiing and climbing friend of mine says he won’t take up fly fishing until he hits 60. “Lack of adrenaline,” he says. I personally can’t wait to see him flail away in frustration when he picks up a rod for the first time.
Those who fish regularly know better.
I find those with innate athletic ability pick up casting, presentation, and line management faster than those lacking such skills. Adrenaline isn’t there all the time, but when you hook into a trophy brown racing through heavy current or a 140lbs-plus tarpon, adrenaline might be the only thing getting that fish into your hands.
If any stereotype shatters easily, it is the argument around stamina.
Fly fishing is an exhausting game. It can involve hundreds of casts or marching thousands of yards or both. The sheer focus required to have success can drain you. Add the elements we fish in, and you have a sport that leaves you fatigued after just a few hours.
Wind doesn’t just wreak havoc with you cast. It also impairs our senses and drains our ability to focus.
Consider how the elements impact a day of fly fishing.
The sun can create extreme heat and reflective light on saltwater flats. On high elevations trout streams (say those above 5,000 feet), solar rays have an intensity lacking at sea level. Cold temperatures can also be strenuous. The constant shivering and attempts to remain warm often make a seven-hour day of fishing feel more like a 24-hours.
And then there is the wind. Its impact goes well beyond hindering a fly fishers cast and presentation.
Wind plays havoc with our senses. Longtime medical professional Joseph Burke, who specialized in fatigue and sleep deprivation before retirement, pointed this out to me several years ago.
“When I am in a boat with a guide and we are dealing with serious winds, I find myself having to concentrate much harder on his or her instructions because it is just harder to hear,” he explained. “My eyes water more often. And then I have that wind sending touch receptors in my skin into overdrive and overloading my somatosensory system. That’s how the wind kills you when fishing. Challenging casting is a secondary issue.”
An avid hunter, Burke notes that elk and deer will often lay-up and limit their movement under windy conditions. He attributes this to wind dulling the senses related to their defense mechanisms. Burke suggests that similar effects occur with humans.
The need for focus, along with the conditions we fish in, can seriously drain you. I have found, after 30-plus years of fishing and guiding around the world that certain precautions can be taken to help anglers stick it out for a solid eight hours. I paid little attention to such matters 20 years ago. Today, these measures are part of my daily routine. I believe they can help just about anyone who casts a rod.
Throughout the western U.S., late afternoon is when air temperatures are at their warmest, the sun is most intense, and winds start to maximize.
Montana angler Steve Stephenson refers to afternoon fatigue he experiences as “the four o’clock wall.” I see this often when guiding guests in Idaho and Wyoming. They have been fishing strong all morning and into the afternoon. Around 2pm, they then have to deal with challenging wind gusts and grueling heat. By 4pm, they are spent. You can see it in their cast, hook set, and focus. It turns what was a great day of fishing into one that started great and ended flat.
Getting on the water early isn’t all about beating the crowds or fishing water that hasn’t seen a fly yet. It is also about maximizing ideal conditions. Some top-notch guides I associate with attempt to be on a stream, lake, or saltwater flat no later than 8am and off by 4pm most days so their guests can fish in as calm and comfortable conditions as possible.
There are times when fishing can be better later in the day, and times when a later start makes sense due to freezing morning temperatures. When this is the case, I adjust my time on the water accordingly. Nonetheless, I tend to get an early start at least five months out of the year.
This is logical from a trout mortality standpoint as well. Water temperatures peak and dissolved oxygen levels bottom out after 4pm. Trout will have a tougher time recovering after release under these conditions.
Look at any magazine or watch any film these days and you will see fly fishers covered head-to-toe. Covering up protects anglers from the pounding solar rays and reflective light we experience everywhere in the world of fly fishing. This is not just about preventing sunburns. Touch receptors in our skin are better protected as well.
Over a long day of fishing, the impact of a constant breeze will take its toll on our somatosensory system. The less the wind touches our skin, the longer most of us will last.
Take a Break
It’s almost impossible to fish for a constant eight or nine hours. Downtime is part of the game. It takes two to tango and sometimes we need to wait for our prey to do their part. That downtime should be used wisely. Focusing on rest and recharging is important.
When I am guiding and notice fatigue or frustration setting in, I will have my guests bring in their line and take a short break.
These periods of rest are generally short – maybe three to five minutes in duration. That little break gives an angler time to refocus and get ready for the next piece of water.
This can occur while I am rowing down to another run or pool and allows them time to retie knots or perhaps dry a surface pattern they are using. This gives them a feeling of needed preparation. But more importantly, it is giving anglers a needed rest.
Proper hydration is a no-brainer, yet so many fly fishers don’t take it seriously.
Water is used in all our cells, organs, and tissues and assists the body in heat regulation - cooling it when conditions are hot and warming it when conditions are cold. Dehydration can lead to inadequate thought processes, which in turn leads to a lack of focus.
Hydration is underrated. My cooler carries no caffeinated sodas. Sports drinks, sparkling water, and a gallon of filtered water, helps fly fishers power through several hours on the water.
Water simply helps every part of our body perform at an optimum level.
Most nutritionists I have discussed hydration with consider 2/3rds to one full gallon of water to be the right amount for active persons. Many fly fishers I guide or fish with regularly might clear one 16 oz. bottle in a day. This falls way short of the recommended intake.
I have a personal gallon jug in my boat that I come close to consuming completely on a given day. Those drinking only a minuscule 20 oz. bottle of water are easy to identify: they are spent physically and mentally by mid-afternoon.
There are steps I take in this era of “zero plastic” to make proper water consumption easier for my guests. One is to provide a personal Kleen Kanteen for each angler or encourage them to bring their own. I make sure that each container is full prior to departing for the stream or lake we will be fishing. I carry a one-gallon Yeti Rambler that is topped off with filtered water that morning. You will not find caffeinated sodas of any kind in my cooler. Instead, I carry flavored sparkling water (St. Croix and Bubly are favorites) as a substitute.
Caffeinated beverages are only brought along upon request. Lastly, on those days when air temperatures are cold, cider and tea is brought along in a 64 oz. thermos.
The diuretic effects of coffee have been debunked for the most part, but I find guests will consume far more tea or cider than coffee when it’s cold.
Little Things Mean a Lot
Hydration, covering up, getting an early start, and taking breaks seem minor. When taken together, however, these little factors go a long way in terms of sustaining performance during a full day of fly fishing.
I base this not only on my own results. I observe my guests and fishing partners perform at a higher level and fish longer as well. Many anglers spend thousands of dollars a year on gear or guided trips to better enjoy the sport and the experiences that come with it.
Being prepared from a physical and mental standpoint is a rather cheap investment. It also makes those expensive investments much more worthwhile.
- written by Boots Allen